Nearly 26 years separated my first and second encounter with Nelson Mandela.
The first time, the African National Congress leader was in the dock in Pretoria facing a strong chance of being executed for treason. He had already spent a year in jail for incitement and for leaving the country illegally. I was a young reporter in the press gallery, taking notes.
The second time was when Mandela was on an excursion into Africa after his release in 1990. In Lusaka, Zambia, a BBC colleague told him there was someone in the media party who had covered his treason trial.
Mandela sought me out and we chatted. I told him we in fact had other links. We had been born within 50 miles of each other. After that, he called me “my fellow Transkeian.”
For a while I felt special. Then I realised Madiba was exercising one of his greatest talents: His innate ability to relate to people, to make them feel at ease.
He had done it with his prison warders. In the future, he would do it with the widow of Hendrik Verwoerd, the architect of apartheid, and with dyed-in-the-wool right-wingers.
Much more than that, he would do it with a nation.
These are extracts from my reports on those rather different occasions:
Sunday Chronicle, June 14, 1964
FRIDAY, 7.30 a.m. The clock in the Pretoria Raadsaal strikes the half-hour, sparking a domestic crisis in Church Square’s pigeon colony. Outside the locked door of the grey-stone Palace of Justice, a handful of journalists and lawyers’ clerks page through their morning newspapers.
A No 2 bus circles leisurely on its way to Brooklyn.
7.55: The crowd around the palace entrance has grown to the size of a rush-hour bus queue. Among the newcomers is a bearded university student who claims to have heard on the best authority that at least two of the eight men will get the death penalty.
As the doors swing open, a young white woman says, “I hope they hang the lot.”
8.30: Winnie Mandela, dressed all in black, enters the packed courtroom. Behind her is an aged relative whom the papers have identified as Nelson Mandela’s mother from the Transkei. A blanketed woman in the third row moves on to the floor to make room for them.
Across the room, an orderly yawns noisily.
9.45: Twelve plain-clothes warders take up their positions behind the dock. With the defence is Cry, the Beloved Country author, Alan Paton, who is to give evidence in mitigation.
The stage is set and the doors are barred. A late-comer brings the news that the court precincts have been cordoned off by a force of police. The man on my right observes, “They’re taking no chances.”
10.00: Mr Justice Quartus de Wet takes his seat and the countdown of more than eleven months is about to end.
Headed by Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu, the accused file into the dock. They wave cheerily to their relatives and Sisulu blows a kiss to his wife.
The eight men seem composed and in unnaturally high spirits. There is the usual surprise to find they are all dressed in well-cut lounge suits, not prison garb. All are clean-shaven.
10.30: Unexpectedly, a game of thrust and parry has developed between Alan Paton and Percy Yutar, head of the prosecution team. It is a battle between a man of words and a man of letters and it becomes obvious where the advantage lies.
Yutar, predatory veteran of the art of cross-examination, goes on the attack with all the devices of his experience – and the witness who came to plead for clemency for others soon finds that he is on the defensive himself. The prosecutor has produced a dossier with an account of the Liberal Party leader’s movements and public statements over the past four years.
Cross-examination ends abruptly and Alan Paton, red-faced and angry, returns to his seat. Mr Justice De Wet decides it is time for tea.
11.30: The accused file back into the dock but this time their smiles are tight and their gestures lack assurance. Dennis Goldberg is white-faced and even the others seem pale under their dark skins.
Defence lawyer Harry Hanson’s final address is short and deliberate. It reflects Mandela’s statement from the dock earlier this week that it is the Government that should be on trial here.
When he sits down, the judge nods and the eight men stand. Kathrada scratches nervously at his ear. Mandela clenches and unclenches his fists.
It is all over so suddenly that most of the public are not aware sentence has been passed. But jubilation spreads quickly to the black section of the gallery as Kathrada turns around and mouths the word, “Life.”
Mrs Bernstein says, “Thank God.”
Waving and smiling, Nelson Mandela and his co-accused disappear down the stairway to the cells. The man on my right says, ‘They’ll only serve 15 years.”
1.45: The Black Maria carrying the prisoners has left for Pretoria Central and the crowds have dispersed. Two riot policemen walk away from the scene, their job over. One says, “They should have hanged the bastards.”
Church Square returns to its lunch-time routine. A No 2 bus circles on its way to Brooklyn.
And 26 years later:
The Argus Africa News Service, April 15, 1990
Nelson Mandela has moved into the warm embrace of Africa with his first trip beyond the frontiers of South Africa in 27 years.
The biggest crowd ever seen in Zambia came together in Lusaka to welcome the man Zambian President Kenneth Kaunda said was “as much our leader as you are the leader of the African National Congress.”
Earlier, successive groups of ANC members—most of whom were not born when their icon went to jail—toyi-toyied before the crowd of Zambians and chanted slogans.
From there, Mandela travelled to Harare, Zimbabwe, where more than 50,000 people packed a stadium with a normal capacity of 35,000 to acclaim their reverence and wonder at his presence.
Later, the man who confessed on leaving Victor Verster Prison, that one of his greatest yearnings during his long years in jail was to be able to hug a small child, had a chance to embrace more than 30 small children.
They were the sons and daughters of ANC members in exile in Harare. Aged from about two to twelve, they came on stage at the University of Zimbabwe where Mandela received an honorary doctorate in law.
Before he did, the children indulged in an unrehearsed bout of toyi-toying that had the audience of academics and diplomats on their feet.
Nelson Mandela stooped and hugged every child. He discarded a formal speech and said: “Every day I am here, I enjoy the feeling that I am a human being.”
Then his eyes flooded with tears, and he turned to look through a far window at the soft hills beyond the campus.